The fair treatment of Indigenous peoples has never been a priority for the Government of Canada. This neglect stems from settler colonial histories that continue to reflect contemporary inequalities of distribution patterns for Indigenous communities. There is an alarming pattern of discriminatory distribution of water rights against Indigenous peoples in Canada that reflects ongoing legal conflict over inequalities and marginalization of Indigenous peoples at large.
In 2010, Resolution 64/292 under the United Nations termed access to water security a basic human right and a prerequisite for other basic human rights in all other respects. In September 2015, global leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. The sixth goal from this adopted by all global partners with the United Nations is the achievement of clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. This includes improving water pollution and building cooperative relationships with local communities. In light of this, failure to provide Indigenous peoples equal access to clean drinking water is a human rights violation by the Canadian government.
Further, in 2015—the year that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected—his platform promised to end water-boil advisories for all Indigenous communities within five-years (March 2021). However, Trudeau has since back-pedalled on this commitment as the COVID-19 Pandemic has shifted priorities away from Indigenous rights. This is unsettling as there is no more important of a time to address Canada’s waterless communities than now, given that the ongoing pandemic requires better water sanitation in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. Because Indigenous communities are more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 due to their lack of clean water, access to healthcare and other social determinants, it is necessary to expose the inequities of water distribution and weaknesses of water governance in Canada. In this sense, Canada is in need of a new water supply.
Many Indigenous communities across Canada do not have access to safe drinking water. Currently, there are 61 communities that remain under drinking water advisories that require people to boil water before use or to avoid consumption altogether, otherwise risking serious health implications. This number does not include the added communities that have since been placed under new advisories since having old ones lifted under the Trudeau government. These advisories include warnings that local water is contaminated or unsafe. Water in these communities tends to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, oil, uranium, lead, it also appears brown, and is foul-smelling. Many of these advisories are decades old meaning that many members of these communities have never known access to clean tap water. Yet Canada is home to 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, rendering it one of the richest freshwater countries worldwide. This means that the vast majority of Canadians have relatively easy access to clean drinking water at their disposal, whereas Indigenous peoples often depend on bottled water. This is despite the fact that Indigenous peoples would have had rights to water before the establishment of the Canadian state. On this view, water in Canada is unceded.
Indigenous communities both in Canada and internationally are often isolated and located in rural areas. The location of these communities puts them at a higher risk of water disparities due to historical-colonial and contemporary inequities that limit sanitation infrastructure abilities to secure clean water. Infrastructure and construction is costly in remote areas while resources for sustainable water development are scarce. This refers to expenses for the cost of building, operation, and maintenance that can reach up to 6 million dollars to service only 600 people as a minimum number. This is money that these communities do not have, therefore, water infrastructure as it stands is built to fail because communities cannot sustain treatment plants.
For Indigenous communities in Canada, there is the added barrier of the absence of a clear legal framework for the provision of clean water. Because water is a provincial and territorial duty, and Indigenous reserves fall under federal jurisdiction through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, provinces do not secure water for these communities. There is also no federal legislation separate from funding agreements that governs the provision of clean water to Indigenous communities. But even these agreements require Indigenous communities to fund 20 percent of water planning maintenance, meaning that the government’s role is limited. This is because water development happened after treaties that were signed with Indigenous communities were established and so do not recognize Indigenous water rights. Therefore, the legal right to water is not equally mandated in the same way that it is for Canadians, reflecting the inherent organizational weaknesses in water governance for Indigenous peoples across Canada.
Indigenous communities have a spiritual tie with water that is added on top of the basic needs. Water is the foundation of many Indigenous teachings and traditions. On this account, water is not just a commodity, rather water is alive, water is “life”. For this reason, water must be recognized as culturally significant. Taking this into consideration, it would be useful to implement an interdisciplinary approach to water provision. This involves consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples. What this might look like includes the creation of tribunals composed of community members that work with the government to protect and improve water rights. Moving forward, there must be more partnership and collaborative planning amongst the federal government and Indigenous communities. The Canadian government must allow Indigenous voices to be heard within processes of water governance development. An institutionalized, community-based collaborative water governance system is necessary.
Photo credits: We all need clean water holding sign, by Joe Brusky, published on February 16, 2014, licensed under Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0). No changes were made.
Riyana Karim-Hajiani is a student at McGill University pursuing a B.A. in Political Science at the Honours level. Currently in her second year at McGill, she has joined the Catalyst as a staff writer. Particularly, she is interested to explore Indigenous legal issues pertaining to the laws that affect Indigenous peoples and the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada and internationally.